WASHINGTON -- American Honda estimates that more than 24,000 recalled airbag modules made by Takata are scattered among thousands of salvage yards and auto recyclers across the country. The company is scrambling to make sure none of them ends up back on the road.
In recent months, Honda has been reaching out to these businesses with an offer to buy any Takata airbag inflators covered by the recalls. American Honda spokesman Chris Martin says the automaker has bought about 3,900 so far and is storing them in a safe location.
The effort casts a spotlight on a murky segment of the automotive supply chain and a weak spot in the nation's recall system: scrapped vehicles that are a common source of inexpensive replacement parts used by independent repair shops and wrench-savvy consumers, especially for fixing older vehicles.
At one Detroit-area salvage yard, for example, undeployed driver- or passenger-side airbags were available for $27.99 apiece to anyone who could detach the part from the damaged vehicle.
Federal regulations prohibit the sale of defective used auto parts for repairs. But the regulations are largely unenforced and unenforceable, Michael Brooks, a staff attorney at the Center for Auto Safety says, meaning that it's up to the thousands of salvage yard operators to police their own inventories and keep unsafe parts from being reinstalled.
"For NHTSA to be able to enforce that kind of provision I think is next to impossible," Brooks said. "I just don't see how they could track the parts."
That challenge was a major reason General Motors expanded its ignition switch recalls in March 2014 to 2.2 million cars, including newer vehicles that were built with the corrected switch. The company was concerned that older faulty switches may have been reintroduced into these vehicles as replacement parts during repairs. "Because it is not feasible to track down all the parts, the company is taking the extraordinary step of recalling 824,000 more vehicles in the U.S. to ensure that every car has a current ignition switch," GM said in a statement at the time.
As for the Takata airbags, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it's working on the issue. "NHTSA has two goals here: We want to ensure that defective airbag inflators stay off the road, and we want to ensure that inflators are available for investigation and testing," agency spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said. "We're talking with the recyclers and with automakers to make sure they are working toward those goals."